Anonymity is a core First Amendment value that enables the dissemination of ideas, participation in the democratic process, membership in political associations, the practice of religious beliefs, and the expression of one’s identity without fear of government interference or public retaliation. The protection of anonymity is all the more important online, where surveillance and personal data collection threaten individuals’ ability to communicate without revealing their identities.
The ‘Honorable Tradition’ of Anonymous Speech
Although anonymity has taken on new meaning in the digital era, its historical roots run deep. As the Supreme Court wrote in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), anonymous speech “is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent.” One of the most famous examples of anonymous political writing occurred during the ratification of the Constitution itself, when the Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius. Notably, the practice was nonpartisan: in response to the refusal by several Federalist papers to publish anonymous works, outraged Anti-Federalists declared that this action would “reverse the important doctrine of the freedom of the press.”
Anonymity remains an important safeguard for political discourse, yet its significance reaches much further. Anonymity is a necessary component in people’s ability to form ideas outside the watchful eye of their neighbors, as well as the government’s. “The recognition that anonymity shelters constitutionally-protected decisions about speech, belief, and political and intellectual association—decisions that otherwise might be chilled by unpopularity or simple difference—is part of our constitutional tradition,” writes Prof. Julie Cohen. “But the benefits of informational autonomy . . . extend to a much wider range of human activity and choice. We do not experiment only with beliefs and associations, but also with every other conceivable type of taste and behavior that expresses and defines self.”
The Right to Anonymity
The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that a right to anonymity lies in the First Amendment. As the Court explained in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission:
The Court has also recognized that anonymity is central to the flourishing of a pluralistic society, as it permits engagement in ideas and beliefs outside of the mainstream without fear of retribution. For example, in Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation (1999), the Supreme Court held that a statutory requirement that those circulating political petitions wear identification badges “inhibits participation in the petitioning process” because it impermissibly limits the number of people willing to petition for organizations.
In NAACP v. Alabama (1958), the Court held that Alabama could not require the NAACP to disclose its member list because its members faced “economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.” In Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton (2002), the Court affirmed the right to anonymously advocate door-to-door. And in Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta (2021), the Court held that California could not compel charitable organizations to pierce the anonymity of their major donors based solely on the state’s interest in preventing charitable misconduct and self-dealing.
Recent Documents on Anonymity
What’s in a Concept? Some Reflections on the Complications and Complexities of Personal Information and Anonymity
Gary T. Marx | 2006
On the Economics of Anonymity
Alessandro Acquisti, Roger Dingledine, & Paul Syverson | 2003
Anonymity: A Model for Protecting Privacy, International Journal on Uncertainty, Fuzziness and Knowledge-based Systems
Latanya Sweeney | 2002
Examined Lives: Informational Privacy and the Subject as Object
Julie E. Cohen | 2000